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civilized workspace

Libraries – Organizational Culture

Libraries often talk about changes. But for an organization that aspires to achieve a significant transformation from a real-time learning and information center, there seems to be not so much discussion about the change of organizational culture. Even at libraries where librarians are appointed as faculty rather than staff, there is often a strict hierarchy of ranks, and this hierarchical culture may hinder open discussions on various issues.

What is quite interesting is that librarians themselves are quite well aware of this issue. In “Views and Dreams: A Delphi Investigation into Library 2.0 Applications,” Jenny Bronstein and Noa Aharony present the survey results to the question of how probable and desirable for all library staff members to collaborate in the development and/or planning of new library services, procedures, or policies. The result showed that while 73 percent thought it was desirable, only 30.5 percent believed it was probable. So while the majority wants something, the same majority also understands that it would probably not happen.

This survey results emphasize the gap between what librarians deem to be desirable for libraries and how present libraries as organizations are likely to respond to various challenges that they are facing.

I think that the gap may be partly the result of libraries’ hierarchical organizational structure and conservative and reserved organizational culture. I often wonder how great it would be if librarians can work at libraries that are more like innovative think-tanks than any run-of-the-mill companies, where staff are encouraged to experiment and to openly discuss issues about library programs and services. But the reality is that we want to make libraries a civilized workplace!

Michael Stephens at Tame the Web has posted a inspiring code of conduct which belongs to the Menasha Public library staff. There are two agreements, one for staff and one for supervisors. The agreement is so simple and commonsensical. After all, one of the items in the agreement is “Everyone will say good morning, please, and thank you to everyone with good will, no matter what their relative position.” Someone may wonder what kind of code this is if it states such an obvious thing. However, kindness and respect begin with small steps and those small steps can have a big impact on the morale of a library staff.

Robert Sutton, a professor in Stanford Business School regards nasty and demeaning behavior as something similar to an infectious disease in his book, The No Asshole Rule. Even without explanation, we understand from experience that our emotions are easily transferred to others and that particularly negative emotions are powerfully infectious.

Now, this is something all supervisors need to keep in mind in my opinion. It is impossible for one to be always happy and cheerful. There are days on which one is down, tired, and grumpy. But if you are a supervisor, you have the obligation to stop those emotions from getting in the way of interacting with your staff. If negative emotions from peers have a negative impact on people’s emotions, how greater the impact would be when those negative emotions come from their bosses?

Like many people, I had the experience of working with a boss who sometimes became cranky and moody. My boss was usually cheerful, but sometimes I could tell that s/he was grumpy. S/he was in many ways a wonderful supervisor, but what I most admired about her/him was that when s/he was having a bad day, s/he rarely failed to tell me so directly. As a result, I was rarely stressed out nor wondered if it was something I did wrong. Of course, theoretically we all should be able to separate our life from work and put aside our personal issues. But when that fails, the best thing one can do is to simply admit it. This will prevent others from assuming that you are mean and nasty. Even Sutton points out that almost all of us turn into temporary assholes from time to time and we can always overcome the asshole inside us by recognizing it.

The fact that emotions are infectious is not a necessarily bad thing. That means that if you are nice to someone, that itself may suffice to make the person happy. Although this seems like such a trivial thing,  it is not. Just by saying “Good Job” or “Thank you”, you may just increase the level of your staff’s job satisfaction by a notch!

Sutton also demonstrates that there is a clear inverse relationship between workplace productivity and efficiency and the nasty and demeaning behavior among workers.  As Kate Sheehan points out in her posting as a TTW guest, while this usually works as a sufficient reason for for-profit organizations to establish and practice no asshole rules as their hiring guidelines while libraries, like most non-profit organizations, deal more in intangibles and don’t look to the balance sheet for guidance.

So in these critical times of rapid changes and numerous challenges, libraries struggle to be a “civilized” workplace. I know that this is a desirable goal and we should all try to adopt and practice such a code of conduct like that of the Menasha Public Library.  Still, I wondered for a minute if we also need to address a more fundamental issue such as whether the current organizational structure and culture of libraries can enable and support the libraries of the future that all of us seem to want – innovative and inspiring information and learning commons.

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